Letter to Cuno: Dismissal of Educators Sparks Discord Inside Getty Museum

Last month, more than 50 Getty Museum staff members signed a letter to Getty Trust CEO James Cuno and his bosses, the Board of Trustees, objecting to recent cuts in the museum’s education department. (See below for full text.)

For those not familiar with the Getty culture, grumbling about management has long been a varsity sport there, but such open displays of dissent are more rare.

The anger is focused on Cuno’s decision to eliminate 12 of the Getty’s 17 gallery teachers — a unique position in the museum world that put the Getty in a leading role in arts education. The paid teachers, many of whom had Masters in the arts, will be replaced by volunteer docents, “educated individuals who themselves want deep experiences with art, and who will in turn seek to deepen student and visitor engagement with artworks,” according to the posted Getty job announcements. (We’ve previously written about Cuno’s cuts here and here.)

image from hyperallergic.com

The cuts will allow more visiting students to get guided tours and are aimed at saving some $4 million annually than can be used for new acquisitions of art, the Getty has said. But some from inside and outside of the Getty have questioned the wisdom of targeting educators. (Be sure to read the comments at those links, including the response from Cuno.)

Several museum staffers have contacted us in recent weeks with their concerns, calling Cuno’s less-is-more position “Orwellian.” The running joke among staff is that with Cuno’s focus on acquisitions, the Getty should change its web address from getty.edu to getty.acq. Some have suggested other areas for savings in the Getty’s $270 million a year operation. For example: Timothy Potts, who will take over as director of the Getty Museum in September, recently asked that the Getty replace the furniture in his future office. The existing furniture — which Potts referred to as “Pee Wee Herman furniture” — has been moved out and mid-century modern pieces are being sought to replace them. Also: The Skidata ticket machines being installed in the garage for the new automated parking system were recently sent back to the factory for custom painting, a museum staffer tells us. It appears they come in two standard colors, neither of which matched the Getty’s travertine. (This is not to mention the six-figure salaries of top Getty officials.)

Such examples may seem petty, but it was symbolic excesses amid belt-tightening that fueled the deep anger at Cuno’s predecessor Barry Munitz, who was ultimately driven from his job in 2006 for self-dealing with Getty funds. (Ironically, back then Getty museum officials were also upset that Munitz was too focused on hobbies like education policy, and not willing to dedicate the necessary funds to build the Getty’s collection.) It will be worth watching how these sentiments unfold in the months before the arrival of Potts.

The Getty Board

Here is the full text of the May letter from museum staff, with Cuno’s response below it:

May 4, 2012
Dear Dr. Cuno and the Board of Trustees:

We support and share your objective “to maintain the Museum’s very high standards of excellence in all areas.” While we will strive to maintain these high standards in the face of staffing reductions, the drastic and sudden changes to the Education Department’s structure and philosophy will significantly jeopardize our efforts.

The Getty Museum has been at the forefront in the museum field not only for its excellent exhibitions and collections, but also for our approach to education in both theory and practice. A key aspect of this has always been our professional and highly-trained gallery teaching positions. All of the Gallery Teachers and program staff have extensive knowledge of art history, child development theories, and teaching pedagogy, particularly as it relates to object-based and informal learning. Like all of the professionals in the museum, we stay abreast of the research which determines best practices in our field. Indeed, after 20 years of research, our colleague Elliott Kai-Kee has co-written the book on what exemplary gallery teaching can and ought to be. Across the country, colleagues in other museums have used the ideas articulated in the book as a model for the kind of transcendent experience they want their visitors to have in their own galleries. Yet, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of deep changes to the Getty’s teaching philosophy without a rigorous analysis of how best to meet the institution’s current priorities without sacrificing quality.

The removal of the Gallery Teachers and the plan to replace them with docents with a mere four months lead time is emblematic of the nature of these changes. The Getty’s professional Gallery Teachers are unique in the museum world and have been symbolic of the institution’s deep commitment to quality educational experiences, particularly for school children. Many of the Gallery Teachers have master’s degrees in art history, fine art or classical studies, all of which result in unique perspectives that provide insight into the complex history or creation of an object. Moreover, the Gallery Teachers’ deep knowledge of the collection, in addition to their status as employees, allows for the much-needed ability to teach any tour at a moment’s notice for any type of audience—from a VIP group to students who are English language learners. We agree in holding our curatorial and conservation staff to the highest standards, and we are disappointed that the front line professionals who interact with the public will no longer be held to the same high standards.

After the staff meeting on April 4, we were optimistic that the administration’s stated support for arts education in LAUSD would translate to a commitment to the quality of students’ experience in our galleries. Instead, the sudden elimination of key staff will result in the hurried substitution of volunteers for experienced educators and an overall reduction of professional development programs for teachers. We are deeply concerned that volunteers who may not have had any prior teaching experience will have a difficult time learning about our collection and the needs of the diverse LAUSD school population within a two-month training period. Unfortunately, the students of LAUSD will once again be the victims of cuts to professional, highly trained teaching staff.

It is deeply unfortunate that the standards that make the Getty Museum a leader in the field of education have now been compromised. In the future, we hope to work together to devise effective, thoughtful strategies for teaching in the galleries that would meet our core mission while maintaining a standard of excellence.

Getty Staff Members

Cuno responded on June 1 with the following email to museum department heads:

Dear Colleagues,

As you may know, I received a letter from numerous Museum staff members regarding the recent changes in Museum Education. It is very important that everyone have a chance to express their views on decisions taken by Getty administration and I very much appreciated the candor and constructive tone with which the letter was written.

Since there were no typed names and departmental affiliations to help identify the letter’s signatories with any confidence, I am asking you to share this with your colleagues if you think it is appropriate.

Our goal in transitioning from a wholly professional gallery teacher staff to a mixture of professional and volunteer teaching staff was to provide many more guided tours for our school group visitors than we currently provide.

Last years total attendance in our School Programs was 114,000. Of these, 74,000 were Title One students (a U.S. Department of Education program that provides support for school districts with the highest student concentration of poverty) and 40,000 non-Title One. Of the total attendance, only 39,000 experienced guided tours by gallery instructors; 67,000 were self-guided, or experienced the museum and its galleries with minimal assistance from us. An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multi-media tours, will enable us to meet our goals within the constraints of our budget.

I have the greatest confidence in our Museum educators. Under Toby’s leadership, they attract and train an excellent corps of volunteer teachers. And given that volunteer-led tours are the norm in our profession, our shift of emphasis positions us to play a leadership role in this aspect of Museum Education. We are grateful to the contributions our gallery instructors have made and will make in this regard. Having the ability to serve more of our visitors with a guided tour at a level of instruction appropriate to their needs was an important consideration as we thought about reorganizing the gallery instruction program.

Thank you again for your letter. And thank you for your good work.



4 responses to “Letter to Cuno: Dismissal of Educators Sparks Discord Inside Getty Museum

  1. If I’m not mistaken, the “Pee Wee Herman furniture” referred to is beautiful, custom-made, timeless, and very expensive furniture by contemporary artist and designer Roy McMakin. I think it was commissioned by John Walsh, the highly-respected Getty director who was leader when the buildings opened. That the new director is coming in and dismissing it all, to be replaced by probably equally expensive midcentury Modern furniture, says a lot about him and about the demise of the Getty since Walsh’s time. Moreover, it seems so extravagent when the education program is being dismantled and highly qualified educators are losing their jobs. What is it with the Getty? Why can’t they hire people with a bit of humility (and sense of humor – something that McMakin’s furniture inspires)…

  2. From Cuno, “Our goal in transitioning from a wholly professional gallery teacher staff to a mixture of professional and volunteer teaching staff was to provide many more guided tours for our school group visitors than we currently provide.”

    Cuno keeps repeating this, along with the statement that the new goal of the Getty is to provide all visiting students with guided tours – what he leaves out are minor facts such as: come September, visiting school groups will be able to partake of one general tour, as opposed to having the choice that was previously offered of 6 carefully developed, California Department of Education curriculum coordinated tours created based on input from teachers over the years. And high school students visiting the Villa next year will have absolutely no option for a guided tour – they may check out multimedia players instead. So how is it that the Getty is maintaining the quality of their educational program?

    Cuno also keeps emphasizing how many students the Getty will be able to serve, but decisions like those enumerated above seem to indicate that what is being sought is purely quantity, while quality is an afterthought, if a thought at all. This becomes even more apparent when it is realized that what is left of the Education department staff have only 2 and 1/2 months in which to train this new docent corps. Standard practice in museums of the Getty’s size and prestige is for docents to go through rigorous training for 1 to 2 YEARS in order to deliver quality educational experiences for students.

    These things do not seem to matter now. But this was obvious when Cuno explained to staff in meetings on May 1 that students who were coming to the Getty, especially those who were first time visitors, didn’t really need anything except for a warm smile and a welcome. Such statements beg the question of how Dr. Cuno came to this conclusion, especially when years of educational research in museums conducted and well published by people like John Falk and Lynn Dierking clearly indicate that novice visitors need careful instruction – not merely a welcome. The last 20 years of museum theory and research have been dismissed with one fell swoop in favor of an erroneous idea that kids will be magically edified by simply passing through the doors of the art museum.

    If the Getty wanted to make a strategic shift and replace professional teaching staff with volunteers, there were plenty of ways to do so that would have preserved the integrity of the quality educational experiences the museum has provided to Los Angeles for many years. Teachers, parents, superintendents and students could have been consulted, which, for a non-profit institution with a public trust, would be a proper course of action. A careful plan for how best to transition from professional teachers to docents could have been put in place that would have allowed for a reasonable amount of time to recruit, screen and train the new docents. These things would have been done if maintaining quality was the true goal. Unfortunately it will be easy enough for Cuno to take increased numbers of school children to the Board and for all of them to pat each other on the back, pleased with themselves for something that looks good at a glance – but will anyone ever look beneath the surface of those numbers?

  3. I love art history and I am saddened to see anyone bold enough to pursue such a career path lose their job; apparently it is a field only those with the safety net of a trust fund would be wise to hazard. However, surely it doesn’t require a postgraduate degree in art history to answer children’s questions about art. Besides, any real cultivation of a genuine aesthetic is a heuristic and self discovery process that requires a considerable degree of mature intellectualizing and experience, and that is well beyond the capacity of a child.

  4. Pingback: Chasing Aphrodite 2012: The Year in Review | CHASING APHRODITE

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